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NFC South rookie grades: Falcons' draft keyed run to Super Bowl

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The 2016 NFL season just ended -- but the 2017 NFL season is coming. As the NFL Scouting Combine nears, NFL.com looks forward by looking backward, grading the 2016 rookie class for each team and identifying what the front office should focus on this offseason. Click below to scroll through each divisional rundown.

Atlanta Falcons

» Round 1: (No. 17 overall) Keanu Neal, S, 17 games/17 starts.
» Round 2: (52) Deion Jones, MLB, 18 games/16 starts.
» Round 3: (81) Austin Hooper, TE, 17 games/4 starts.
» Round 4: (115) De'Vondre Campbell, LB, 14 games/13 starts.
» Round 6: (195) Wes Schweitzer, OG, 0 games.
» Round 7: (238) Devin Fuller, WR, 0 games.
» Notable undrafted FAs: Josh Perkins, TE, 11 games/1 start; Brian Poole, CB, 19 games/11 starts.

Whenever a team can field four rookie starters on a Super Bowl defense, the coaching staff and personnel department deserve serious props for their player identification and development plans. Dan Quinn showed tremendous confidence in his youngsters when he inserted Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole into the starting lineup. The young quartet not only energized the unit with energy and athleticism, but these guys added some thump and playmaking ability to a lineup that started to come together down the stretch. Offensively, Austin Hooper flashed big-play potential as a "stretch" tight end. If he continues to progress as a playmaker, he could emerge as a nice complement to a dynamic WR corps on the perimeter. GRADE: A+

Combine/free agency focus: The Falcons need to find a pass-rushing partner for Vic Beasley in the offseason after the second-year pro single-handedly disrupted opponents off the edge with an NFL-leading 15.5 sacks. In a draft full of explosive edge rushers, the Falcons could take long looks at UCLA's Takkarist McKinley, Tennessee's Derek Barnett and Michigan's Taco Charlton to see if they are capable of filling the role.

Carolina Panthers

» Round 1: (No. 30 overall) Vernon Butler, DT, 10 games/0 starts.
» Round 2: (62) James Bradberry, CB, 13 games/13 starts.
» Round 3: (77) Daryl Worley, CB, 16 games/11 starts.
» Round 5: (141) Zack Sanchez, CB, 5 games/1 start.
» Round 7: (252) Beau Sandland, TE, 0 games.
» Notable undrafted FAs: Jeremy Cash, WLB, 8 games/0 starts; Jared Norris, ILB, 14 games/0 starts.

The Panthers' rookie cornerback tandem held its own on the island. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley survived their baptism by fire to emerge as solid starters by the end of the season. Each cover corner experienced some ups and downs during the season, but both were rock-solid performers by the end of the year. Vernon Butler flashed in limited action as a rotational player on the inside. He should be ready to fill a bigger role in Year 2. GRADE: B-

Combine/free agency focus: Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman believes in investing in the big boys on draft day. Carolina could use an offensive tackle or a pass rusher to help the team dominate in the trenches. In a weak offensive tackle class, the Panthers could be forced to consider reaching a bit to nab Utah's Garett Bolles, Alabama's Cam Robinson or Wisconsin's Ryan Ramczyk. Defensively, the team could add a pass rusher like Tennessee's Derek Barnett or Michigan's Taco Charlton to add some sizzle to the defensive line.

New Orleans Saints

» Round 1: (No. 12 overall) Sheldon Rankins, DT, 9 games/0 starts.
» Round 2: (47) Michael Thomas, WR, 15 games/12 starts; (61) Vonn Bell, FS, 16 games/14 starts.
» Round 4: (120) David Onyemata, DT, 16 games/0 starts.
» Round 7: (237) Daniel Lasco, RB, 7 games/0 starts.
» Notable undrafted FAs: Ken Crawley, CB, 15 games/5 starts; De'Vante Harris, CB, 10 games/0 starts; Tommylee Lewis, WR, 12 games/1 start; Wil Lutz, K, 16 games/0 starts.

Despite missing the first half of the season recovering from an injury, Sheldon Rankins showed team officials that he was a potential game-wrecker as an interior defender. He finished the season with four sacks and a handful of pressures that served as a warning shot for opponents gearing up for the Saints' defense in 2017. Vonn Bell was a solid find at safety. The ex-Ohio State standout immediately added some energy, athleticism and playmaking to the unit as a versatile box defender. Michael Thomas quickly emerged as Drew Brees' No. 1 target in the passing game. The big-bodied pass catcher led the team in receptions (92) and ranked near the top of the league among rookies in every receiving category. GRADE: B+

Combine/free agency focus: The Saints' porous defense has struggled against the pass for years without a true CB1 on the island. The team must address the issue to have any chance of closing the gap on the competition. LSU's Tre'Davious White, Alabama's Marlon Humphrey and Florida's Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson will get extended looks at the combine to see which player is capable of filling the biggest void in the secondary.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

» Round 1: (No. 11 overall) Vernon Hargreaves, CB, 16 games/16 starts.
» Round 2: (39) Noah Spence, DE, 16 games/3 starts; (59) Roberto Aguayo, K, 16 games/0 starts.
» Round 4: (108) Ryan Smith, CB, 14 games/0 starts.
» Round 5: (148) Caleb Benenoch, OT, 5 games/1 start.
» Round 6: (183) Devante Bond, OLB, 0 games; (197) Dan Vitale, FB, 0 games.
» Notable undrafted FAs: Peyton Barber, RB, 15 games/1 start; Alan Cross, FB, 14 games/0 starts; DaVonte Lambert, DE, 11 games/5 starts.

The Buccaneers' three-win jump in 2016 (to 9-7) was fueled by a defense that gradually improved with young defenders in key spots. Noah Spence quietly enjoyed a strong rookie campaign as a designated edge rusher. He finished the season with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a rotational player. Spence could blossom into a double-digit sack guy if he masters the nuances of pass rushing in his second year. Vernon Hargreaves played well on the island opposite Brent Grimes. He flashed outstanding footwork, movement skills and instincts occupying the CB2 spot on the perimeter. GRADE: B

Combine/free agency focus: The uncertainty surrounding Doug Martin could prompt the Buccaneers to dip into a deep running back pool on draft day. The team could find an explosive three-down back like Florida State's Dalvin Cook or any number of change-of-pace specialists (Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, Tennessee's Alvin Kamara or N.C. State's Matt Dayes) to alleviate some of the pressure on Jameis Winston to carry the offense.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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